MD Polygamy & marriage in general

From: Wim Nusselder (
Date: Sat Apr 05 2003 - 22:13:54 BST

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    Dear Rick, Platt and Sam (mainly), with a note to Matt K.,

    This is a belated contribution to the discussion of the quality of polygamy
    and a reply to especially your views as expressed 16 Mar 2003 17:10:37 -0500
    (Rick) and 17 Mar 2003 08:31:47 -0500 (Platt). It is also an attempt to
    apply my MoQ to marriage in general, because that's the context of my views
    on polygamy. So Sam may be interested too, having noted his interest in
    marriage dating back to at least his 4 Jan 2002 12:06:24 -0000 post.

    For Matt: even though I use the word 'metaphysics' (in MoQ), I agree that it
    should not be understood as a 'meta-narrative' that 'sits behind all other
    narratives and vocabularies', but as a 'local narrative'. In other words: I
    recognize (like Pirsig) that it is not the only metaphysics possible. What
    about seeing it as a 'frame story', an attempt to create a context in which
    as many other stories as possible get a meaning (but never all)?

    'Polygamy', like 'marriage' in general refers for me to both a social and an
    intellectual pattern of value.
    The social pattern of value is that people show in their behavior
    recognition that a couple (trio, quartet, whatever) belong together. Others
    respect their exclusive dealings with each other and they themselves show
    special attention to each other.
    The intellectual pattern of value consists of the systems of ideas used to
    motivate, maintain, strengthen etc. such behavior. Part of that intellectual
    pattern of value can be marriage contracts sanctioned by church or state law
    and the passing on of marriage customs via stories and/or instructions
    telling people what they should do.

    These patterns of value contribute to the stability of lower level patterns
    of value.

    The young of the species homo sapiens need a long period of protection and
    acquiring know-how before they can survive more or less by themselves and
    reproduce. Marriage (the social pattern of value) contributes to the
    survival of the species (the biological pattern of value) by maintaining
    stable relations among protecting adults alias role-models (both their own
    parents and other members of the group in which they live) and by limiting
    potentially violent competition for sexual partners.

    When people come to live in larger groups, when population density rises
    and when (potential) relations in a society become more complex and
    abundant, marriage as a social pattern of value becomes more and more
    vulnerable and needs reinforcement by the intellectual pattern of value
    'marriage' refers to.

    These patterns of value also offer (some) freedom from lower level patterns
    of value.

    Marriage (the social pattern of value) creates (together with other social
    patterns of value) stable societies that can survive independently from each
    other. Certain marriage habits (either males or females always 'marrying
    out') prevent inbreeding. Stable marriages make for stable family relations
    which enable recognition of 'blood ties' as basis for group loyalty. The
    cumulative effect of these social patterns of value is, that societies can
    afford to compete with each other (even violently) and thus speed up
    evolution (e.g. by adapting technology to
    new ecosystems during migration) WITHOUT BOTHERING ABOUT THE SURVIVAL OF THE
    SPECIES AS A WHOLE. 'Thanks' to the social level homo sapiens could become
    maybe the only species that fights others of its own species in order to
    kill them and with an 'intra-species struggle for survival of the fittest'.
    The resulting social evolution also freed man from the rigor of biological
    struggle for survival, however.

    Marriage (the intellectual pattern of value) is part of an 'ideology' (in a
    broad and non-derogatory sense of the word) that makes people consciously
    strive to 'behave' themselves. Ideology can thus re-inforce social patterns
    of value. (The 'Victorianism' Pirsig describes in 'Lila' is -in his own
    words from 'Lila's Child', footnote 45 in my version- 'an intellectual
    justification of existing social patterns'.) To the extent that it attains
    the same ends (protecting the young, limiting violence etc.) with conscious
    means it can free people from rigid social patterns of value. Lifelong
    faithfulness to one partner, limiting 'marriage' as a social pattern of
    value to heterosexual couples that can produce clear 'blood ties' etc. may
    not be necessary anymore when society (consciously) creates other ways to
    attains these ends, e.g. by making 'marriage' a kind of contract that can be
    terminated when specific conditions are met. 'Social level marriage' cannot
    accommodate 'divorce', 'intellectual level marriage' can (if it wants to).

    Polygamous marriage can perform these roles (contributing to stability of
    and freedom from lower level patterns of value) just as monogamous marriage
    can. In some situations it does better (e.g. when the balance of males and
    females is disturbed by war or other disasters), in others worse.
    Even old-testamentic law legitimized polygamous marriage in specific
    circumstances: Deuteronomy 25:5 'If brothers are living together and one of
    them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her
    husband's brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a
    brother-in-law to her.'

    I think Rick exaggerates the risk of social unrest and instability because
    of polygamy. In practice the average amount of spouses per married man in a
    society that allows polygamy never rises above 2. Except when some disaster
    has changed the balance of males and females, this is normally offset by
    habits and norms making sure that males marry at a later age than females.
    Females are widowed much more often and usually younger than men and often
    remarry. When men may marry more women at the same time (when they have
    enough social status and a ripe age), women often marry more men
    consecutively during their lifetime. If disasters (of types that
    disproportionally hit men) are frequent, polygamous societies may be more
    successful and sustainable than monogamous societies by making better use of
    the (whole period of) fertility of their females.

    The consequence of polygamy is, that young males must control their sexual
    urge until they are old enough and have enough status to marry. It may be no
    coincidence that polygamy often co-exists with a pattern of value in which
    women have to hide themselves for the eyes of men often co-exists.

    Against this background an assessment of the relative quality of monogamous
    and polygamous marriage depends on one's own viewpoint. I belong to a
    society that is held together by social patterns of value in which polygamy
    is not accepted. I identify -like almost all Dutch- with an intellectual
    pattern of value in which polygamy is rejected (but tolerated in other
    societies) and -like most Dutch- with an intellectual pattern of value in
    which marrying (or not) is left to individuals to decide (so outside
    marriage promiscuity is tolerated). I lived together with my (now) wife for
    7 years before we married without meeting with so much as a raised eyebrow.
    (We married because it made buying a house more convenient.) My closest
    colleague is still unmarried even though she has children only a few years
    younger than mine and that is not considered strange either by a lot of
    Dutch. Stable relations and fidelity are still the norm for most Dutch,
    however, especially when a couple has children under its care, so to some
    extent 'marriage', both as a social and as an intellectual pattern of value
    still holds, even though 'marriage contracts' are not deemed essential.
    Although I experience value in marriage and especially in its monogamous
    variety, I recognize that there exist stable societies in which polygamy is
    the norm (for its high-status members). I can even imagine societies that
    function quite well without any formal marriage, as long as people act
    responsibly towards each other also taking into account long-term
    consequences of their behavior for others (especially for children). That
    responsibility can take a lot of forms and in order to protect a society
    against irresponsible members some form of government (either secular or
    religious) may have to sanction and/of stimulate some of these forms, but
    not necessarily the forms that are normal in my society.

    There is more to marriage and polygamy (and to patterns of value in general)
    than that however. They not only contribute to the stability of lower level
    patterns of value and (in upholding the stability of a pattern at their own
    level) to freedom from lower level patterns of value. They also point at
    value/quality at the next higher level.

    At the social level a pattern of value can point to an intellectual truth
    when it harmonizes with an intellectual pattern of value. Social level
    marriage and the rituals involved in it can point to something like 'unity
    by complementing each other' or 'social harmony' or 'social stability' by
    harmonizing with intellectual level marriage. Religious rituals can point to
    religious truths by harmonizing with theology and with
    Christian/Islamic/Jewish etc. ethics.

    At the intellectual level a pattern of value can only point upwards by
    harmonizing with evolutionary dynamics, by metaphorically showing us
    something about DQ itself.

    The 'absolute quality' of patterns of value resides in the 'moon' at the
    next higher level which they are pointing at... All other assessments of
    their relative value are contentious and dependent on context.

    It is only in this sense, of 'pointing to DQ', that monogamy is superior to
    polygamy, I think. Any explanation of this intuition risks being challenged.
    For me this intuition is linked to
    1) The paradox of men and women 'being created equal' although it is
    self-evident that they are born quintessentially unequal ('boy or girl'
    being the first we look for in a new-born). Why should one of them be put in
    an unequal position by polygamy (or polyandry)?
    2) The feeling that it is WRONG to make the number of one's spouses, the
    'possession' of more wives (or husbands), into a status symbol. Competition
    for spouses violates the highest quality experience we know: direct,
    personal, intimate relationship between two people.

    Going from monogamy to polygamy is simply not the direction we should go
    (even if going to polygamy from a situation in which women were even less
    equal may have been the direction to go in for instance 7th century Arabia).

    With friendly greetings,


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